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The turning point // JEFFERSON

Now that Jefferson is one victory from the state Class 5A final, let's consider what Armwood coach Sean Callahan said after his team handed the Dragons their only loss, 11-6, in the season's fifth week.

Callahan said: "We broke the spirit of Donald Caldwell tonight."

Donald Caldwell is Jefferson's quarterback; and since the Armwood loss, he has guided his team to nine consecutive victories, including games where he scored five touchdowns, ran for the winning touchdown in overtime and threw a last-minute touchdown pass to win yet another.

And this week, when asked if there was a turning point amid all the success, Caldwell pointed directly at the Armwood loss.

"That loss hurt all of us real bad," he said. "But it also opened our eyes. It made us realize we could get beat if we didn't stay focused."

Jefferson coach Darlee Nelson couldn't have agreed more in regard to being "focused," especially considering that against Armwood, Jefferson had 186 yards in penalties, a couple of which caused touchdowns to be called back.

And maybe even more astonishing was this penalty-related stat: On 18 occasions, the distance Jefferson needed to travel for a first down was more than 10 yards, including third-and-30, third-and-41, fourth-and-48 and fourth-and-53.

"We work and work to have a disciplined, respectable program, and when you have games like that it really hurts," Nelson said. "We always talk about not getting out of character, and when we got all those penalties it was like daggers stuck in our hearts."

In retrospect, however, the loss might have been the best thing that ever happened to the Dragons, who host Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (12-1) in tonight's semifinal.

"Sure, we all wanted to go 10-0," said defensive lineman Jamal Jefferson, known as the team's vocal leader. "But we definitely would rather go 14-1 and come home with that state title.

"To be honest, if we didn't have the experience of that loss, we might be too overconfident now."

The most deeply influenced player from the loss probably was wide receiver Troy Hart, who dropped two sure touchdown passes in that game, but came back to finish the regular season ranked second in Hillsborough County with 43 catches for 761 yards and six touchdowns.

Hart put it succinctly: "I bounced back."

Nelson said the thing that has pleased him most is how Hart and the rest of his team "stayed in character" after the Armwood loss.

Jefferson cut its penalties down through the rest of the season, including last week's 27-24 quarterfinal victory over Hollywood South Broward, where the Dragons got flagged just four times for 25 yards.

"We're much more in control and we don't take anybody for granted," Jefferson said. "I truly believe that the only people that can stop us now is ourselves."

AQUINAS (12-1) at JEFFERSON (12-1)

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m., Sam Horton Stadium, 4423 W Cypress.

COACHES: St. Thomas Aquinas _ George Smith; Jefferson _ Darlee Nelson.

KEY PLAYERS: St. Thomas Aquinas _ RB Duc (pronounced Duke) Augustin (180 carries, 1,119 yards); RB John Underhill (106 carries, 660 yards); DL Kenneth Costello (120 tackles); QB Mike Scott (650 yards). Jefferson _ QB Donald Caldwell (2,292 passing yards, 904 rushing yards); RB Reggie Randall (590 yards); RB Tremaine Singleton (96 yards and two touchdowns last week); DL Jamal Jefferson; LB Mike Rainey; WR Troy Hart (57 receptions, 1,005 yards).

UP NEXT: The winner plays in the Class 5A final Friday in Daytona against the winner of the Lakeland-Panama City game.

THE SEASONS

St. Thomas Aquinas Jefferson

7 Boyd Anderson 0 24 Robinson 15

29 Cocoa Creek 14 42 Clearwater 14

40 Miramar 24 36 Dunedin 0

10 Dillard 6 6 Armwood 11

45 Hallandale 7 27 Plant 5

16 Nova 7 14 East Bay 13

38 South Plantation 13 24 Pinellas Park 9

38 Deerfield Beach 16 26 Brandon 20

0 Piper 21 43 Largo 14

41 Cardinal Gibbons 0 24 Durant 14

Playoffs

10 South Dade 0 44 Dixie Hollins 22

27 Okeechobee 10 41 Barron Collier 34

24 Northeast 10 27 South Broward 24

SUMMARY: St. Thomas Aquinas has held eight opponents to 10 points or less, but as Raiders coach George Smith said, "We haven't seen too many quarterbacks this season like (Donald) Caldwell." Caldwell, who has thrown for 2,292 yards and rushed for another 904, also has pulled off last-minute victories the past two weeks. Jefferson not only has the home-field advantage this week, but it also faces a team that has had to make back-to-back trips to the Tampa Bay area for playoff games (Aquinas beat Northeast 24-10 last week). The Raiders, however, have tradition on their side: They've made 15 playoff appearances in the past 20 years, including six in a row, and a state championship in 1992. Along with another stellar game from Caldwell, Jefferson will need the defense to take out the Raiders early and keep them down. St. Thomas scored 20 points in 23 seconds against Okeechobee and scored 24 points in the second half against Northeast last week.

HOOPER'S PICK: Jefferson 24, St. Thomas Aquinas 14.

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